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‘The Lake Shore Limited’ by Sue Miller

An elegant precision informs Sue Miller’s fiction, a craft that serves as container and counterpoint to the messy lives and relationships at the core of her work.

Miller’s ninth novel, “The Lake Shore Limited,” belongs to the burgeoning genre of Sept. 11 literature: books that share an interest in grief and social dislocation. But the backdrop here isn’t simply one colossal day of destruction.

Miller’s baby-boomer characters have traversed a long arc of disappointment, from the youthful idealism of the 1970s to the compromises of middle age. Instead of politics itself, Miller has taken as her subject the politics of relationships and the human-scale disasters that flawed men and women inflict on one another.

“The Lake Shore Limited” refers to a train, and the title doubles as that of a play in the book. The novel’s dominant metaphor -- impossible to miss -- is the equation of life with theater. Miller’s characters move around their homes as if on stage sets, playing roles that chafe at times but also guard them from emotional danger. Most guarded of all is Billy, a playwright who aggressively channels her conflicted feelings into her work.

Billy’s life is rife with poses and evasions. She adores a dog given to her by her lover, Gus, but can never quite give herself over to the man himself -- despite his charm, sexual skill and the fact that his older sister, Leslie, has become her good friend.

Struggling with guilt and awkwardness, Billy decides she must move out of Gus’ apartment and end the relationship.

Before she can tell him, though, Gus’ plane hits the World Trade Center. It’s a tragedy but also, possibly, a relief. On the way to his memorial service, Billy worries about having to feign a grief deeper than she feels. “It would begin now, her performance,” she thinks.

Miller’s writing also calls attention to itself as a performance, though not in a flashy, postmodern way. The craft is more severe than that. Her prose style is economical, only occasionally reaching for lyricism. But the third-person narration uses both flashbacks and multiple perspectives, circling around the incidents at the center of the book.

We see the action from the viewpoints of four different characters, two men and two women. Each part of the novel chronologically overlaps, before moving ahead. It’s not exactly “Rashomon,” but the device underlines the mysteries that separate and confound even close friends and lovers.

The plot pivots around a present-day rendezvous in a Boston restaurant after a performance of Billy’s play “The Lake Shore Limited,” which focuses on a man awaiting news, after a train bombing, of a wife he has ceased to love. The play’s themes -- of marital decay, father-son conflict and the role of accident in human affairs -- reverberate throughout the novel.

Waiting for Billy are Leslie, who can’t quite let go of her friend; Leslie’s somewhat opaque husband, Pierce; and Sam, a twice-divorced architect who once nursed an attraction to Leslie.

Their romance, never consummated, has long since subsided into friendship. Leslie, a generous soul, has conceived of bestowing Sam, willing or not, on the bereaved but presumably recovering Billy.

Of these four figures, only Pierce remains in shadow. We never hear directly from him, never see events through his eyes. Instead, the novel’s fourth voice belongs to Rafe, the lead actor in Billy’s play.

Rafe has had a tangled history with his own wife, Lauren, now increasingly incapacitated by ALS. No hero, he is subject to the terrible ambivalence inherent in being a caretaker to a disabled, dying spouse -- a role also filled at one time by Sam, whose first wife died of cancer.

Miller is a lover of fearful symmetries, and one can imagine her carefully -- perhaps too carefully -- plotting out her novels. From her crystalline prose to the generally absorbing story line, there is much to admire in “The Lake Shore Limited.” But this new novel lacks the large, colorful characters of her last book, “The Senator’s Wife,” which starred a sexually voracious politician and his alternately self-abnegating and vengeful wife.

It lacks, too, the propulsive momentum of that novel, along with its sense of looming disaster.

In “The Lake Shore Limited,” the disasters are mostly past, and a more hopeful future beckons, however uncertainly. The novel ends on a note of cautious optimism, amid a silent, purifying snowstorm, with two romantic survivors hovering on the brink of connection.

Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor to Columbia Journalism Review.


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